The setting is Venice. Act One begins, as Volpone (the “fox”) and his close servant Mosca (the “fly”) celebrate Volpone’s morning “worship” of his gold. After this blasphemous adoration, Mosca flatters Volpone, stressing that his fortune was not made by oppressing the poor. Then in a soliloquy, Volpone exposes his method.
Volpone is a shameless villain, quite open about his deceptions, inviting the audience (through Mosca) to admire his skills at manipulating human greed. The play then has an “interlude” in which Volpone’s “creatures”—a dwarf, a eunuch and a fool—entertain him in grotesque imitation of court entertainments.
The action begins with the arrival, one by one, of Volpone’s “clients,” whom he despises. To receive them he pretends to be terribly sick. The first is Signor Voltore (the “vulture”) who is a lawyer. Mosca assures him that he is Volpone’s only heir. Then comes Corbaccio (the “raven”), who is old and deaf and impatient. He offers some medicine that Mosca recognizes as a poison and then produces a bag of gold. Mosca says he will use it to excite Volpone to make a will in Corbaccio’s favour and then suggests that Corbaccio should make a will naming Volpone his sole heir, in place of his son, as proof of his love. When the next client comes, Corvino the merchant (the “crow”), Volpone seems to be at death’s door, though he still has the strength to grasp a pearl and diamond Corvino has brought. Mosca invites Corvino to shout insults at him, saying that he is quite unconscious, and then suggests that they should suffocate Volpone with a pillow. This frightens Corvino, though he does not condemn Mosca for the idea. Finally, after mentioning the English visitor Lady Would-be, Mosca tells Volpone of the beauty of Corvino’s young wife, who is jealously guarded. This makes Volpone long to see her.
Act Two begins with the play’s sub-plot; the English traveler Sir Politic Would-be holds a conversation with another English traveler, Peregrine, showing himself to be vain and foolish. Volpone arrives disguised as a mountebank and begins a long speech boasting of the qualities of his special medicine. Corvino’s wife, Celia, throws down some money from a window and Volpone tosses back his potion. Corvino suddenly appears and chases him away.
Volpone is love-struck and asks Mosca to get Celia for him. Meanwhile we see Corvino violently abusing his wife, mad with jealousy. Mosca arrives, saying that Volpone is a little better after using the mountebank’s potion! The doctors, he says, have decided that he should have a young woman in bed with him, so that some of her energy may pass into him. Mosca says that one of the doctors offered his daughter, a virgin. Then he assures Corvino that Volpone would not be able to harm her, and he urges Corvino to find someone first, since Volpone might change his will. Corvino decides to offer Celia!